All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate
Tim O’Neill (TO) rightly says of some of the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus:
Yet curiously not a single aspect of evidence addressed by either David Fitzgerald (DF) or himself in his reviews of DF’s work has hit on anything that he finds ambiguous or difficult to interpret. In every point of disagreement TO suggests DF is nothing but a liar or a fool.
The first unambiguous retort TO makes to DF’s treatment of Josephus is the dogmatic assertion that Josephus mentions Jesus twice. No argument. No ambiguity. No uncertainty.
Josephus does mention Jesus – twice. So any Myther book or article [arguing the Christ Myth thesis] has to spill a lot of ink trying to explain these highly inconvenient mentions away.
[T]he passage has Josephus saying things about Jesus that no Jewish non-Christian would say, such as “He was the Messiah” and “he appeared to them alive on the third day”. So, not surprisingly, Fitzgerald takes the usual Myther [Christ Myth] tack and rejects the whole passage as a later addition and rejects the idea that Josephus mentioned Jesus here at all.
Interpolation a “mythicist” argument?
This is most curious. The actual fact is that most mainstream scholars until after the Second World War generally agreed that the entire passage was an interpolation. Or if not entirely an interpolation, the fact that it had been tampered with at all rendered it useless as historical evidence. I have quoted the evidence for the prevalence of these views in my post, What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus.
Today, however, it seems that “the majority of scholars” accept the contrary view, that Josephus did indeed say something about Jesus beneath the obvious Christian overlay. Given that most New Testament scholars are ideologically predisposed to belief in Jesus, and that Josephus’s testimony is the only non-biblical evidence we have from the first century for Jesus, I would not be surprised if a majority did think this. But so what? If a significant minority still leans towards the view that the entire Josephan passages is a forgery or useless as evidence, then it hardly seems reasonable to dismiss this view as the preserve of Christ Myth supporters.
Sociological explanation for the revised view of Josephus as evidence
The evidence is essentially the same. (Although in 1971 Arabic and Syriac versions of the Testimonium were also brought to light.) What has changed are the trends in interpretation of the evidence.
One sees a possible explanation for this new trend in Alice Whealey’s 2003 book, Josephus on Jesus, and again in her article, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic” in New Testament Studies, Vol. 54, Issue 4, Oct 2008, pp. 573-590. In the latter she explains:
In fact, much of the past impetus for labeling the textus receptus Testimonium a forgery has been based on earlier scholars’ anachronistic assumptions that, as a Jew, Josephus could not have written anything favorable about Jesus. Contemporary scholars of primitive Christianity are less inclined than past scholars to assume that most first-century Jews necessarily held hostile opinions of Jesus, and they are more aware that the line between Christians and non-Christian Jews in Josephus’ day was not as firm as it would later become. (p. 575)
This says loads. It is a virtual confession that the shift in interpretation has been motivated to a significant extent as a reaction against both real and perceived strains of anti-semitism in earlier scholarship. The error here is that the personal bias and values of Josephus himself are trumped by an impulse to undo an earlier generation’s sins of negative stereotyping. The context in which the passage occurs is also bypassed. Josephus personally loathed any movement that stood in opposition to the political and religious status quo under Roman rule. Taking seriously both the personal bias of Josephus and the context in which the Testimonium Flavianum is found (it is in a list of calamities befalling the Jews in which the TF fits as comfortably as a pimple on one’s nose), even the so-called “neutral” core of that TF is problematic.
Rhetoric of avoidance
As for TO’s charge that the interpolation view is the “usual” one for those who dispute the historicity of Jesus, this, too, is a piece of rhetoric that functions to shut down debate. By referring to “usual” arguments TO excuses himself from acknowledging, let alone addressing, the contents of those arguments. Those arguments are wide-ranging and varied. They are far from being ad hoc or mere catch-phrases. DF lists many of them (as we saw in the previous post) but TO ignores them.
Mythicist Thomas Brodie also points out that even if Josephus did write a few lines about Jesus they could by no means be considered independent testimony. Whatever Josephus may have written adds nothing to what is already well-known from Christian writings themselves. And Josephus would have had access to these, or others who knew of them, in Rome at the time he was composing Antiquities. See Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . The Evidence of Josephus.
How to locate the “Josephan core”
TO himself uncritically asserts the authority of the mainstream rationale for Josephus having written a few of the words in the passage we now read as the Testimonium.
[O]nce the more obvious interpolated phrases are removed, the passage reads precisely like what Josephus would be expected to write and also uses characteristic language found elsewhere in his works
One needs to ask why all scholars are not so easily convinced. Of course one can remove certain phrases to change the tone of what one is reading. This is hardly iron-clad proof of anything, surely. Moreover, the claim that the remainder is what we would “expect” Josephus to write is naive. DF explained the several reasons why we should not expect Josephus to have said anything even mildly positive or neutral about Jesus (see the previous post) but TO chooses not to introduce such complications into his review. TO’s own words might well apply to himself:
Not content with ignoring inconvenient key counter-evidence . . .
The Arabic Testimonium: shifting goal-posts and the smear game
I am finding it increasingly difficult to wade through TO’s smear rhetoric in order to distill any possible serious argument. But to place on record a rebuttal is not a bad thing, so let me do it once more with respect to TO’s claim that the Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum knocks out DF’s argument for interpolation.
DF made no reference to the Arabic version of the TF in Nailed! TO accordingly accuses him of “ignoring inconvenient counter-evidence”. TO explains the nature of this evidence:
Professor Pines found an Arabic paraphrase of the Tenth Century historian Agapius which quotes Josephus’ passage, but not in the form we have it today. This version, which seems to draw on a copy of Josephus’ original, uninterpolated text, says that Jesus was believed by his followers to have been the Messiah and to have risen from the dead, which means in the original Josephus was simply reporting early Christian beliefs about Jesus regarding his supposed status and resurrection.
This is backed further by a Syriac version cited by Michael the Syrian which also has the passage saying “he was believed to be the Messiah”.
The evidence now stacks up heavily on the side of the partial authenticity of the passage, meaning there is a reference to Jesus as a historical person in precisely the writer we would expect to mention him.
So how does Fitzgerald deal with the Arabic and Syriac evidence? Well, he doesn’t. He is either ignorant of it or he conveniently ignores it.
This reads as if TO is making an unambiguous assertion that the Arabic version of the TF “seems to draw on a copy of Josephus’ original, uninterpolated text”. That is, TO appears to be saying unequivocally that the Arab version is a witness to the original words of Josephus. That Josephus did write something about Jesus is witnessed by this Arabic version. I don’t know how else to interpret TO’s assertions here.
The Arabic version of the Testimonium is indeed a paraphrase, preserved in the world history of a tenth-century Arab Christian, Melkite Bishop Agapius of Hierapolis, . . . .
O’Neill neglects to mention (or simply doesn’t know) [DF is mimicking TO’s language] that the late Prof. Pines himself cautioned against claiming that the Arabic text represents Josephus’ original version.
Peter Kirby noted we can’t be sure Agapius was even quoting straight from a manuscript at all (he doesn’t even get the title of Josephus’ book correct, which suggests that he was working from memory, which would also explain any differences with the Greek version) And even if he was, it is certainly very late and corrupted, and thus practically worthless.
What’s more, Pines freely acknowledged that there were several other explanations for the text;
he personally believed that Agapius acquired his subject matter from texts in the care of – surprise! Eusebius, our prime suspect for forging the Testimonium in the first place! (see Gaalyahu Cornfield, The Historical Jesus: A Scholarly View of the Man and his World, Macmillan, 1982, p. 190) See where this is going…?
So this was already the sorry state of evidence for both these writings before 2008, when Josephan scholar Alice Whealey made her rather conclusive case (see Alice Whealey, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic,” New Testament Studies 54.4 (2008) pp. 573-90) that even the once-much-touted Arabic version of the Testimonium actually also derives from… you guessed it – Eusebius, by way of an intermediary Syriac version,
and so long story short, neither of these medieval Arabic or Syriac texts came from Josephus. Which is why I didn’t include any of this wild goose chase in Nailed. Which, if O’Neill really kept up with Josephan studies as much as he’d like us all to think, he should have known all along…
DF has stung TO here. So TO’s reaction? To play word-games and argue in a circle. Rather than simply admit he indicated that the Arabic version was drawing upon a Josephan original, he now shifts the goal-posts and takes up another argument addressed by Alice Whealey and faults DF for not addressing that one!
TO has apparently re-read Whealey’s article and replies with the following points:
- Whealey argues that the Syriac version was closer to the Josephan original than the Arabic one (a detail TO clearly overlooked in his original criticism of DF)
- Whealey argues that both the Arabic and Syriac version did derive from Eusebius (a Syriac translation thereof)
- Whealey argues that the Arabic and Syriac versions of the TF probably point to what Eusebius originally wrote
- What Eusebius originally wrote (that Jesus “was believed to be the Christ” instead of “Jesus was the Christ”) was derived from Josephus himself.
And what are the arguments that the Syriac version of Josephus was more accurately transmitting the original words of Josephus? Here we come back to square one. Assumption. The Syriac and Arabic version does not have Josephus saying Jesus was the Christ, but rather that he was believed to have been the Christ. So therefore we can assume Josephus really wrote those words about Jesus.
Of course this argument runs up against all the other critical studies of Josephus that go to lengths to explain why Josephus deliberately avoids any hint of Jewish messianism, even supposedly avoiding the word ‘messiah’, in his Antiquities, and the context, etc and so forth.
TO himself gives his own personal game away when he admits:
There are possible counter-arguments to this, of course, as there always are with any such argument.
Thus TO returns briefly to his wise observation that so much of the evidence is ambiguous and inconclusive. So because Whealey argues that some of the Arabic TF is closer (via Eusebius) to what Josephus originally wrote, DF is faulted for using her claims and evidence to argue his own point. How dare anyone use the contents of any scholarly work to argue a point to support one’s own case and that the quoted scholar does not otherwise hold! Such a criticism would make it impossible for any new ideas to be advanced that were in any way based upon the research of others.
Whealey and Pines do indeed agree that the Arabic version derives from a translation of Eusebius. Whealey even disputes TO’s original criticism of DF.
TO’s point seems to me to be to smear the intelligence, competence and honesty of DF rather than engage in honest and civil debate.
For masochists only
For the convenience of anyone who wants to torture themselves more over the ins and outs of TO’s final remarks on this particular sub-item, or for anyone who simply wants to check the grounds for my own criticism of TO here, I quote TO’s final words here:
Pines, Whealey and the Testamonia of Agapius and Michael the Syrian
Fitzgerald then goes into some detail on why he ignored the highly pertinent textual evidence of additions and emendations to the testimonium provided by the variant versions found in Agapius and Michael the Syrian. These variants exhibit differences in the very elements in the textus receptus version which seem most likely to be later Christian additions to the Josephan text. But since Fitzgerald has held up Steve Mason as an authority, I’ll give his summary of the significance of this evidence as a usefully succinct one:
(T)he existence of alternative versions of the testimonium has encouraged many scholars to think that Josephus must have written something close to what we find in them, which was later edited by Christian hands. If the laudatory version in Eusebius and our text of Josephus were the free creation of Christian scribes, who then created the more restrained versions found in Jerome, Agapius and Michael? The version of Agapius is especially noteworthy because it eliminates, though perhaps too neatly, all of the major difficulties in standard text of Josephus …. Agapius’ version of the testimonium sounds like something a Jewish observer of the late first century could have written about Jesus and his followers. (Mason, p. 172)
But, of course, if these variants indicate Josephus’ reference to Jesus was merely “edited by Christian hands” the Mythicist case is critically weakened. They need the whole passage to be “the free creation of Christian scribes”. This is why Fitzgerald crows that “several years ago historian Alice Whealey conclusively proved both these claims wrong”.
Like Creationists, many Mythicists use counter-arguments that have taken on an almost folkloric form – they haven’t actually read the scholarship on a given point themselves, but they have seen other Mythicists cite it and so they do so as well. So I’ve seen this “Alice Whealey has dismissed the idea that the textual variants indicate later Christian additions” idea invoked several times before. Each time it emerged that the Mythicist in question had not actually read Whealey’s dense and quite excellent paper on the question.
So, after a summary of Pines’ cautious arguments, Fitzgerald triumphantly declares:
Alice Whealey made her rather conclusive case (see Alice Whealey, “The Testimonium Flavianum in Syriac and Arabic,” New Testament Studies 54.4 (2008) pp. 573-90) that even the once-much-touted Arabic version of the Testimonium actually also derives from… you guessed it – Eusebius, by way of an intermediary Syriac version, and so long story short, neither of these medieval Arabic or Syriac texts came from Josephus. Which is why I didn’t include any of this wild goose chase in Nailed. Which, if O’Neill really kept up with Josephan studies as much as he’d like us all to think, he should have known all along…
Unfortunately for Fitagerald, I have indeed “kept up with” Josephan studies; which is why I am well aware of Whealey’s article. This is also why I know that, far from somehow debunking the idea that the variant testamonia of Agapius and Michael point to an original, unedited version of Josephus’ text, she actually supports and refines it.
Whealey’s article is closely argued and complex and she argues persuasively that Schlomo Pines was on the right track when he pointed to the versions of the testimonium in Agapius and Michael as evidence that the mention of Jesus in Antiquities XVIII.3.4 was original to Josephus, but added to later by Christians. But she notes that since Pines wrote in 1971 there has been extensive work done on the relationship between Agapius’ Arabic chronicle and the Syriac one by Michael and on their most likely common sources and their interrelations. Drawing on this more recent work, Whealey reassess Pines’ analysis and draws some different conclusions.
Whealey disagrees with Pines that it’s Agapius’ version of the testimonium that most closely reflects what Josephus wrote and argues that it is actually Michael the Syrian’s Syriac version that does so:
(I)n arguing that Michael’s Testimonium, which is generally close to the textus receptus Testimonium and which has clearly been taken from a recension of the Syriac Historia Ecclesiastica, is more authentic than Agapius’ Testimonium, this study implies that the textus receptus Testimonium is much closer to the passage that Josephus originally wrote about Jesus than is often assumed. Indeed, the evidence of Michael the Syrian’s Testimonium, used in conjunction with the evidence of Jerome’s Testimonium, indicates that the only major alteration that has been made to Josephus’ original passage about Jesus is the alteration of the phrase ‘he was thought to be the Messiah’ to the textus receptus phrase ‘he was the Messiah’. (Whealey, p. 588)
So what Whealey actually argues is that both Agapius and Michael got their versions of the testimonium from a common source – probably James of Edessa – which in turn used “a recension of the Syriac Historia Ecclesiastica“. And the pertinent point here, given Fitzgerald’s erroneous “long story short” summary above, is that she argues this recension of the Syriac translation of Eusebius Historia read “thought to be the Messiah” rather than “he was the Messiah”. She also notes Jerome’s Latin translation of the testimonium has a very similar phrasing:
Since it is scarcely credible that the writers could have independently modified the Testimonium in this same way their readings must reflect an original Greek Testimonium reading something like ‘he was believed to be the Christ’. Jerome’s translation reading ‘credebatur esse Christus’ is highly significant because the earliest manuscripts of his De viris illustribus, the work in which his translation of the Testimonium appears, date to the sixth or seventh century; thus they are several centuries older than the earliest Greek manuscripts of Book 18 of Josephus’ Antiquities or of Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica. (Whealey, p. 581)
Thus she concludes that both the Syriac version of Eusebius and Eusebius’ original text both referred to Jesus as merely being “thought to be the Messiah”, with Eusebius, like Josephus, being amended later. Jerome and the Syriac recension that lies behind Agapius and Michael therefore reflect both an unedited version of Eusebius and, ultimately, the original text of Josephus’ testimonium. Interestingly, she also note that “because this reading is independently supported by Jerome’s very early translation of the Testimonium, …. it can readily explain Origen’s claim that Josephus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah.” (p. 588).
There are possible counter-arguments to this, of course, as there always are with any such argument. But the issue here is how on earth Fitzgerald could have read all these references in Whealey’s article to what “Josephus originally wrote about Jesus” (p. 588) and “Josephus’ original text about Jesus” (p. 587) and yet try to use Whealey’s article to argue against the idea that Josephus originally mentioned Jesus. And his “long story short” summary above shows clearly that he didn’t understand what Whealey was saying about the implications of Jerome and the Syriac Historia‘s version of Eusebius at all. Again, it’s almost as though he didn’t even read Whealey’s article and was just parroting some bungled Mythicist folklore about it. Or if he did read it, he clearly didn’t understand it. Again, we see evidence of either crippling ideological bias or abject scholarly incompetence.